Grief is a normal human response to loss.
We grieve when we anticipate the death of someone we love or when someone we love dies. We also grieve other losses including those resulting from divorce; the loss of a home or job; the loss of our own health and other losses in our lives or in the lives of those we love. Those who grieve talk about feeling deep sorrow, profound sadness, gut-wrenching pain and heartache. They often feel empty, lost, and alone along with many other feelings including anger and frustration. Grief affects us emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. It has ramifications for our relationship with our selves, those around us, and often for our entire life. The depth of the pain depends on the loss a person has experienced and on the person who is grieving. Grief has many facets and is unique to each person in spite of their being some universal feelings, effects and behaviors. There is often confusion about the terms 'grieving' and mourning'. According to expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt, "Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. Think of grief as the container. It holds your thoughts, feelings, and images of your experience when someone you love dies. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss. Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the inside and express it outside of yourself. Another way of defining mourning is 'grief gone public' or 'the outward expression of grief'." Read Dr. Wolfelt's entire article and visit his website and education center here.
In addition to grieving our own losses, many people are deeply aware of the grief they carry for people they do not know. Think about those lost on 9/11 or the families of those on Malaysian Flight 370 and you will probably experience some sadness on their account. I do believe that being in touch with our own pain allows us to experience the grief of others more deeply.
We also grieve the loss of our earth as it is slowly being destroyed by many careless and greedy individuals and corporations. See author and therapist Francis Weller's site: Wisdom Bridge for more information about this. Hopefully we will carry both grief and gratitude as we walk our journeys through life. If we only acknowledge one of these, we cheat ourselves and others.
How Long does Grief Last? Those who grieve often wonder how long their pain will last. The truth is grief lasts forever though it changes over time. Most people will always feel some or even a great deal of sadness over the loss of someone they deeply love and that sadness can surface even years later. We do not "get over" grief or loss. We learn how to hold the pain, how to live with the loss, integrate it into our lives and even use it to become more empathic and compassionate. It all takes time and work and a commitment to walk through the heart of our pain . To postpone grief is to prolong grief.
In the early months or years of a significant loss the sorrow that sits in our hearts can be triggered by the smallest thing; something someone says; opening a drawer to find something that belonged to our beloved; an anniversary and more. Coming to terms with loss and grief takes as long as it takes. There is no time limit on grief and each person does it in their own way. Grief is unique to each of us. Which means we cannot judge another as they grieve. Instead we can reach out with compassion and a listening ear especially months and years later.
How Does Grief Affect Us?
Grief seems to come in waves. Though the grieving person, in the early months, is usually steeped in their sadness and sorrow most of the time, a wave of grief can cause their sadness to feel totally overwhelming. Some waves feel like a tsunami that carries the person out to a treacherous sea of darkness where breathing can feel difficult. Other waves are gentle reminders that trip off pain but flow past us. Most are somewhere in between and over time and with work those waves get further and further apart and for the most part become far more gentle.
Grief is exhausting. Many who grieve come into it following the long illness of their beloved person making the fatigue even deeper. It is lonely especially if we are surrounded by those who just do not understand and we find ourselves alone with our sorrow. Because we live in a society that does not support or feel comfortable with sadness and grief, many grieving people become used to wearing a mask that hides their pain. If you are reading this and feel quite alone with your grief, you are welcome to visit the Grief Healing Discussion Groups where you will find a circle of understanding, loving people who are grieving and sharing their journeys with each other. The groups are guided by founder Marty Tousley, an experienced and compassionate bereavement counselor.
Over time we see ourselves repeatedly survive those times of profound sadness and learn that grief will not destroy us. We become less frightened of the pain and begin to gather strength in dealing with our loss. This leads to the confidence we need to allow our pain and tears to be, as we walk our grief journeys. The only way through grief is through its pain and tears. As I previously mentioned we live in a society that denies death to a large degree and that wants everyone to be as happy as the folks we see in television ads and movies. Because of this attitude and fear, most of us do not learn when we are young that death is a part of life; that nothing on this earth last forever including each of us; and that grief is a normal process, a sign of our deep love, and one that needs to be shared. Nor do we learn how to live with and hold our grief. This denial of grief in a death phobic society means that many if not most people do not really understand grief and therefore do not know how to relate to their own or someone else's grief. Many want to take away the pain because they love the grieving person and want their pain to end and also because they are quite uncomfortable around death and grief. This leads people to say things that are just unacceptable or even to disappear from the grieving person's life or fail to reach out at a time when that person needs to share and feel comforted by those who love them. See the Resources page for more information about grief.